Meet the Academics Who Want Donald Trump to Be President

March 11, 2016

Maria J. Avila for The Chronicle
Joseph Van Horn, a Ph.D. student in political science at UCLA and a Trump supporter, wonders why his fellow scholars aren’t willing to take seriously the merits of a formidable political movement.
Peter Calautti finds a lot to like about Donald J. Trump. He likes that the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is speaking to the concerns of people in working-class neighborhoods like the one where he grew up. He likes that Mr. Trump isn’t afraid to talk about illegal immigration. He likes that the Republican Party, which he says has abandoned conservative principles in favor of large-scale military intervention and tax cuts for the rich, is being punished by Mr. Trump’s ascendancy.

He doesn’t agree with everything the billionaire says, and bristles at some of his sharply worded proposals. Maybe it’s because Mr. Calautti grew up around New York City, but he’s used to big personalities. He says you have to take their rhetoric with a grain of salt.

Assuming he gets the chance, Peter Calautti plans to vote for Donald Trump.

His fellow Ph.D. students just can’t believe it.

That’s not hyperbole. In August, Mr. Calautti began studying at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus for a Ph.D. in media studies, a field in which casual conversation about the presidential election is inevitable. But when he told the other students in his cohort that he planned to vote for Mr. Trump, they laughed. When he insisted, they didn’t believe him. Even now, half a year after he began the program, Mr. Calautti says other students are only "starting to come around to the idea" that he’s serious.

"It’s an earnest disbelief," Mr. Calautti says, but he knows what they’re thinking: "You’re too smart for that. I don’t believe you."

‘Out of Your Mind’

Conventional wisdom says poorly educated voters have fueled Mr. Trump’s improbable rise. "I love the poorly educated," he proclaimed after winning Nevada’s primary last month (though he also boasted of winning the votes of the well educated). "The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree," wrote Derek Thompson in The Atlantic this month.

In academe — where professionals can have three, four, five degrees — Trump supporters may be hard to find. But they’re out there.

Like many people, Joseph Van Horn first treated Mr. Trump’s candidacy as a joke. But as more-traditional candidates failed to outpace the billionaire, Mr. Van Horn, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, listened more closely.

What he heard excited him — among other things, that Mr. Trump was willing to talk about narrow policy proposals rather than harp on conservative social issues. That willingness, coupled with his lack of attachment to the political establishment, made Mr. Van Horn think, "When’s the last time I heard a candidate and thought, ‘That could really happen’?"

Mr. Van Horn doesn’t like Donald Trump personally. And he doesn’t find him all that trustworthy. "I wouldn’t give him the key to my apartment," he says. But he’s excited about the Trump movement, particularly how it has spurred higher turnout and more engagement with the election.

When he brings up that sense of excitement in an academic setting, however, he gets shut down, he says. "I was kind of shocked at how staunchly anti-Trump people are," he says. Many of his peers are willing to issue a blanket condemnation of Mr. Trump’s candidacy as racist and nativist, Mr. Van Horn says, but "shouting ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’ and ‘he’s Hitler’ is just not productive."

“The reaction of everyone in the audience was, you know, chuckling, the implication being that no one in this room could possibly take Trump seriously.”
It’s not as if those terms are not warranted at times. Mr. Trump has been shocking and crass, suggesting, for example, that Mexican immigrants are responsible for widespread rape. "He’s certainly playing to people’s prejudices," Mr. Van Horn says, adding that he doesn’t share those prejudices. He hates the proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country ("I think it’s really shameful that we have Muslims in the armed forces that have to listen to this stuff") but thinks such extreme proposals are unlikely to become policy.

Sharp rhetoric aside, he says, shouldn’t a political-science department be willing to take seriously the merits of a formidable political movement? Mr. Van Horn says the popular dismissal of the Trump campaign has been disheartening and reflective of a broader bias against right-leaning ideas.

Linda Grochowalski, a Trump supporter who teaches English part time at Assumption College and Quinsigamond Community College, in Worcester, Mass., encountered that bias once upon moving into a new office. A previous occupant’s poster still hung on the back of the door.

"It essentially said, You have to be pretty stupid to vote for a Republican," she says. "I guess the writing’s on the wall, or the door."

That bias manifests itself in large groups, too. Mr. Calautti recalls attending a colloquium on civility in public discourse at which the speaker used as an example of uncivil discourse — surprise! — Mr. Trump’s performance in the Republican debates. "The reaction of everyone in the audience was, you know, chuckling," he says, "the implication being that no one in this room could possibly take Trump seriously."

That assumption, he says, may stem from the sense of status that comes from being in academe. The idea that "if you’re in this room, you’re an elite — so you’re not going to respond to things like trade policy and illegal immigration because these things largely don’t affect you."

Gina Marcello, an assistant professor of communication at Georgian Court University, in New Jersey, says she hasn’t often heard the election come up as a topic of conversation on her campus. "If it does come up," she says, "it’s dismissive of Donald Trump." The subtext, which helps prevent her from talking politics with her colleagues, comes through loud and clear: "You’d have to be out of your mind to support a Trump candidacy."

Why Trump?

The academics who support Mr. Trump acknowledge that many of his ideas are dangerous. Outweighing that concern is the conviction that something has to change, and that there’s no better alternative than a Trump presidency.

Ms. Grochowalski says eight years of the Obama administration left her with $8,000 in medical bills. The Affordable Care Act, she says, forced her and her husband off their preferred health-insurance plan. And she’s been disturbed by President Obama’s use of executive orders to bypass Congress.

Ms. Grochowalski, who worked as a marketing and communications director in the private sector, acknowledges that Mr. Trump lacks experience in public office. But she trusts that he would surround himself with smart people because of his business experience.

His lack of political experience could be an asset, Ms. Marcello says, enabling him to appoint the "very best people" to advise him instead of bestowing political patronage.

Compounding their support for the billionaire is a lack of other options. Mr. Van Horn says he would be open to voting for a Democrat, but he thinks the proposals of the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders are unrealistic. As for Hillary Clinton, he neither likes her nor trusts her. (When confronted with the fact that he also says he neither likes nor trusts Mr. Trump, Mr. Van Horn says the former secretary of state is more likely to be beholden to a "very narrow set of society.")

As for those of Mr. Trump’s ideas that Ms. Grochowalski calls "pretty outrageous," legal and constitutional checks are there to stymie any truly devastating plans, she says. "He probably can’t do 30 percent of them, even if he wanted to."

‘The Smallest Town’

For Mr. Van Horn, academe’s reaction to the Trump candidacy has been a particularly disappointing sign of a larger problem.

The 29-year-old grew up in Louisville, Ky., which he calls a "small city in the South." He enrolled in the University of Kentucky when he was 18, but struggled and dropped out after two years.

He then became an electrician, but after a few years of doing that, he wasn’t satisfied. "You can always make a lot of money as an electrician, but learning about the world is something different," he says.

“I was this very liberal person where I was from, and then I come out here and they're all very, very liberal, and they're all very, very rigid.”
So he returned to school, finishing his undergraduate education at Indiana University-Southeast. He then applied to the political-science program at UCLA. He was over the moon about getting to follow his passion for a living — and to broaden his horizons beyond what his upbringing had restricted him to.

But two and a half years into the program, he has found that some academics can be even more closed-minded than people he grew up with. "I was this very liberal person where I was from, and then I come out here and they’re all very, very liberal, and they’re all very, very rigid."

And in political science, where this year’s election is particularly relevant, the popular treatment of the Trump candidacy as a joke has made Mr. Van Horn wonder about the costs to scholarship: "How can you do objective scholarly research? You don’t even treat American voters as people who are qualified to cast a ballot."

Mr. Van Horn still loves studying political science, and he still wants to be a professor. But he watches what he says, and he’s more cynical about higher education.

"It’s a very closed community," he says. "It’s like the smallest town in the world."

Correction (3/11/2016, 12:16 p.m.): This article originally stated incorrectly that Peter Calautti doesn't support Mr. Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. He does.

Andy Thomason oversees breaking news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.